By Geoff Thale
The Obama administration has denied visas to several prominent Cuban scholars—including Rafael Hernandez, Carlos Alzugaray, and Soraya Castro—who were scheduled to speak on panels at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference from May 23-27. It is unclear what criteria the administration used in denying visas to these scholars. Several of them have visited the United States frequently, have done fellowships at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities (including Harvard and Columbia), have met with high-level officials at the State Department, and have been instrumental in fomenting strong academic partnerships between Cuba and the United States. The decision to deny visas to these renowned scholars appears even more erratic coming in the wake of the administration’s approval of a visa for Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, who is also scheduled to speak on a panel at the LASA conference.
This seemingly inexplicable behavior is particularly offensive given that this year the LASA conference had returned to the United States after being held in other countries for several years. Cuban scholars have attended LASA meetings for over two decades, but in 2004 the Bush administration unexpectedly denied visas to every Cuban scholar seeking to attend, and the organization subsequently decided to move its conference outside the United States in protest. This year, the conference returned to the United States, as LASA had come to believe that the Obama administration was committed to permitting academic exchanges and that it would allow Cuban academics to attend LASA conferences.
Moreover, these visa denials undermine the administration’s policy of promoting academic exchange with Cuba, which has been one of the most positive and successful changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba in recent years. These exchanges have helped promote the free flow of ideas, information, and dialogue and have helped feed the desire for greater openness in Cuba. The visa denials are damaging to U.S.-Cuban relations, they are harmful to the interests of the United States, and they hurt Cubans who are supporting increased engagement with the United States. WOLA condemns the denial of visas to Cuban academics in the strongest terms.
Geoff Thale is WOLA’s program director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and Members of Congress.
(Photo by Paul Mannix)